Bill O’Reilly: The Truth About Fox News’ Number-One Bigmouth
This story originally appeared in the September 2, 2004 issue of the magazine.
AT 2:30 P.M. EVERY “WEEKDAY, BILL O’REILLY descends from his office on the seventeenth floor of the News Corp building in midtown Manhattan to the Fox News Channel’s basement bunker deep below street level. There, he moves with a studied, gunslinger’s stride borrowed from his hero, Clint Eastwood, past long rows of office pods where teams of producers cook up the cable network’s daily lineup of “fair and balanced” programming. Working a stick of gum in his jaws, he moves, unsmilingly, past the Hannity and Colmes pod, the Greta Van Susteren pod, the Shepard Smith pod, until he arrives at a tiny enclosure of desks, above which is posted a sign reading THE O’REILLY FACTOR. There, a team of eight producers, most in their twenties, have been nervously awaiting his arrival. A certain suspense always grips a room before O’Reilly enters, the air troubled with a constant, whispered, worried refrain: “What kinda mood is he in today?” and “How’s Bill today?” The question is purely rhetorical. Everyone knows that O’Reilly is always pissed off, aggrieved, spoiling for a fight. But some days are worse than others. Like today — it’s April 22nd, 2004. Things are going badly in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, and all this has made O’Reilly, a booster of the war, even tetchier than usual.
As he enters the pod, his expression is sour and dyspeptic. He drops, ‘wearily, into an office chair facing his staff. In person, O’Reilly is paler, balder, puffier than he appears on TV Right now, he’s showing every day of his fifty-four years. He rises each day at 6:30 A.M. to close-comb the New York Times for evidence of liberal bias (he always finds it), then battles the commuter traffic from his home on Long Island. By the time he has knocked off his two-hour morning radio show, The Radio Factor, then wolfed down lunch in his messy office while writing the “Talking Points Memo” that leads off every episode of the TV Factor, he’s a man in no mood to be messed with.
“Who do we have in Fallujah?” he asks.
“No one,” comes the nervous answer.
O’Reilly winces as if he’s bitten down on a bad tooth. “Why don’t we have anyone there?” he says. “We gotta have a Fallujah thing tomorrow. Make it happen.”
Then, one by one, the producers pitch ideas, tossing them out like clay pigeons that O’Reilly shoots out of the air.
“C’mon, people,” he says.
A female producer suggests a segment on the Palestinians, who it seems are — “I’m asleep, Stephanie,” O’Reilly interrupts. He looks around the circle. “Give me something I can put on the air, please.”
A producer tosses out an idea about a doctor who recommends giving pot to kids with attention-deficit disorder. O’Reilly’s eyebrows lift into two sharp points.
“Can we get the doc?” he snaps.
O’Reilly loves any story that smacks of child mistreatment. There’s easy emotion in it, and what O’Reilly is always looking for is emotion, something to jolt his viewers, to stir them to an indignation, disbelief or contempt equal to his own. His nose for such stories, and his ability to milk them for every ounce of drama, is what has made him the most successful personality on cable news.
He demonstrates his special skills a few days later, when he kicks off The Factor with a tale of two U.S. soldiers who fled to Canada rather than serve in Iraq. Next to stories about abused kids, nothing pushes O’Reilly’s buttons like stories about lily-livered, spineless, cowardly, anti-American lowlifes like these two deserters. He brings on a guest to “discuss” the “issue”: Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Heather Mallick, who has dared to call the two deserters “fine American men.” O’Reilly is not happy. And from the top of the “interview,” he strikes that special note of scathing, keening contempt that might be described as the keynote of the entire Fox News Channel, an operation whose professed reason for being is to counterbalance the supposed liberal bias of all other media outlets. Thus the mood of bunkered aggrievement, which animates even the network’s ostensibly “objective” news shows and which O’Reilly has raised to the level of an art form.
After verbally abusing Mallick as “anti-American,” a “socialist” and someone who writes “stuff that’s not true,” O’Reilly takes the gloves off. “Now,” he says, “if your government harbors these two deserters . . . there will be a boycott of your country, which will hurt your country enormously. France is now feeling that sting.” (He’s referring to a boycott that O’Reilly called for after France declined to join the Bush administration in Iraq.)
“I don’t think for a moment such a boycott would take place,” says Mallick. “We are your biggest trading partner —”
“No,” O’Reilly cuts in, “it will take place, madam. In France —”
“I don’t think that your French boycott has done too well —”
At which point O’Reilly executes his signature move — the bellowing, bullying, peremptory interruption. “They’ve lost billions of dollars in France, according to the Parts Business Review!” he thunders.
In short, amazing TV — the modern media equivalent of witnessing a Christian torn apart by lions, with a touch of opera buffo thrown in. (Boycott Canada?) It mattered not that most of what O’Reilly said bears no relation to the truth. The Paris Business Review doesn’t exist, and the “billions” of dollars France supposedly lost reflect figures dating to the 2001 recession, predating by two years O’Reilly’s call for a ban on buying French goods (since then, French exports to America have actually gone up).
With an average audience of 2.1 million viewers a night for The Factor, he routinely drubs his closest competitor, the former king of cable, CNN’s Larry King (who draws about 1.2 million). His three nonfiction books, The O’Reilly Factor, The No Spin Zone and “Who’s Looking Out for You?, have all been Number One New York Times best sellers; his radio version of The Factor airs on 415 stations nationwide; and his weekly column runs in hundreds of papers.
It’s not hard to figure out why people accuse O’Reilly of being a right-wing operative dressed in anchorman clothes. For one thing, The O’Reilly Factor is the centerpiece of a 24-hour-a-day cable network, Fox News Channel, owned by right-wing media baron Rupert Murdoch and run by CEO and chairman Roger Ailes, the corrosively combative former media strategist for three Republican presidents and former producer of right-wing windbag Rush Limbaugh’s now-defunct TV show. The recent documentary Outfoxed shows the many ways that the cable channel operates as little more than a PR arm for the Republican Party: putting a negative spin on anything to do with Democrats and issuing a steady stream of upbeat, often factually inaccurate, cheerleading for the Bush administration.
For Fox’s critics, O’Reilly epitomizes all that is most sinister about Fox’s methods. O’Reilly angrily rejects such charges. He even denies being a conservative. He says the New York Times and his other enemies in the “pinhead elite media” use the conservative label to marginalize him. “Their point is, ‘This is a conservative — you don’t have to listen to him.'” He claims not to have made up his mind yet on whom he will vote for in the presidential election and denies trying to sway viewers in either direction. “I’m not out there like Rush Limbaugh trying to convert you to be a conservative,” he says. “Or like Michael Kinsley trying to convert you to be a liberal. … My job is to analyze things honestly, tell you why I think it and back it up.”
O’Reilly doesn’t deny holding conservative positions on some issues. He openly admires Bush, saying, “I think Bush really believes he’s doing the right thing for the country. He may be wrong. But it’s not all about him.” He says this while ranting about the supposed naked self-interest of Bill and Hillary Clinton, two of his favorite targets for abuse. He regularly attacks Jesse Jackson, gangsta rappers and the ACLU. At the same time, he’s not quite the pre-programmed right-wing robot that Limbaugh or Fox News Channel personality Sean Hannity are. You’d never catch O’Reilly, for instance, trying to brush the Abu Ghraib scandal under the rug the way Limbaugh did when he said that the actions of the soldiers looked like frat-house hazing and that they merely wanted to “blow some steam off.” O’Reilly voiced genuine outrage over the photos, and although he stopped short of blaming the prison abuses on the Bush White House, he at least had on guests who voiced that opinion. O’Reilly can, at times, be hard on right-wing guests. Recently, Republican infighter Mary Matalin appeared on his program to plug a book, clearly expecting a free ride; soon O’Reilly had rocked her back on her heels as he hammered her with questions about postwar Iraq.
In the run-up to the Iraq war, he worked hard to sell his viewers on the idea that Saddam was harboring weapons of mass destruction, but he came out with an apology (long before the New York Times did) for unintentionally misleading his audience when the aftermath revealed no stockpiles of WMD. And he spent much of early April, weeks prior to the Abu Ghraib revelations, slashing away at Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for his “giant screw-ups” in Iraq and stopped just short of calling for his dismissal because of the “mess” he’d made there — a stance, he admits, that will “lose some of the far-right Kool-Aid drinkers.” Never mind that O’Reilly openly admits that a good deal of his outrage at Rumsfeld derives from his refusal to appear on the show. (“We’re upfront about it,” O’Reilly says. “If you’re a detective and the guy won’t answer your questions and lawyers up, you’re going to be more suspicious of the guy — correct?”) As true devotees of the show know, the meta-drama of The Factor is that it’s all about Bill, all the time. Hovering over the proceedings is a tacit, winking question: How am I, Bill O’Reilly, going to react to the person I am interviewing, and then how are you, the viewer, going to react to me reacting to that person, and then, how am I going to react to your reaction? Which may be why O’Reilly likes to mess with people’s heads over the unexpected liberal views he pugnaciously promotes. For instance, he’s for gun control, same-sex adoptions and civil unions (as long as he doesn’t have to watch gay pride parades, which he says are among “the most offensive spectacles of all”); he’s an environmentalist to the extent that he “believes in global warming”; as a practicing Catholic, he pulls back from actually endorsing abortion, but he doesn’t believe it should be made illegal; and he’s against capital punishment.
But the precise shade of O’Reilly’s conservative politics is beside the point when it comes to his indispensability to the Fox News Channel and its right-wing agenda. This was especially evident in an “interview” he conducted last year — an encounter that tops the list of Most Egregious Things O’Reilly Has Done. In February 2003, he had on as a guest a young man named Jeremy Glick, whose father, a Port Authority worker, died in the World Trade Center attack. A self-described “radical leftist,” Glick was invited on The Factor to explain why he had signed an anti-war statement by a group called Not in Our Name, which accused America of committing atrocities “similar” to the September nth attacks in Panama, Iraq and Vietnam. O’Reilly was openly disgusted by Click’s politics and splutteringly furious at his guest’s refusal to endorse the invasion of Afghanistan that toppled the Taliban (“Who killed your father?!” O’Reilly bellowed). When Glick tried, repeatedly, to be heard above his host’s interruptions, O’Reilly shouted, “I don’t really care what you think,” and was soon yelling at Glick to “shut up!” He eventually told his engineer to cut Glick’s mike. (Glick later said that O’Reilly told him, after the taping, “Get out of my studio before I tear you to fucking pieces” — although Glick also admits that he baited O’Reilly, off-camera, with insults about his show.)
According to Douglas Rushkoff, an author and media/popular-culture theorist, O’Reilly’s poor impulse control is precisely what makes him so valuable to Fox News Channel. According to Rushkoff, O’Reilly’s appeal to anger, emotion and opinion are not merely ratings-grabbing devices; they are part of a larger program of ideological coercion. “As the conservative-message machine geared up in the 19705,” says Rushkoff, “its strategy was to make the political landscape more emotional and less factual — galvanizing a new base of conservative support around hot-button issues. That’s why Fox tries to replace news with opinion.” O’Reilly, Rushkoff says, is crucial to this strategy, with his opinion-based news analysis and short temper. “The net effect of people getting their information from the O’Reilly show, instead of from a news operation, is that they’re more apt to believe that the arguments that sway them most emotionally deserve their allegiance.”
O’REILLY COMES BY HIS ANGER honestly. Born in New York on September 10th, 1949, the eldest of two children of William and Angela O’Reilly, he was physically and verbally bullied by his father, William Sr. An imposing six-foot-three ex-naval officer, William Sr. was a frustrated, thwarted man who, despite becoming an accountant at a large oil company, felt he never reached his full potential, even after he bought a house and moved his family to the tranquil middle-class suburb of Westbury, on Long Island, when Bill Jr. was a year old. “He’d get into a fight at the drop of a hat,” says an elderly Westbury neighbor who recalls William’s hair-trigger temper. O’Reilly says his father took out his frustrations on his son, whom he yelled at for minor offenses and even at times punched in the arm. “There were times when my heart was black with the urge for revenge,” O’Reilly has written about his late father. When I ask O’Reilly how his dad’s bullying affected him, he shrugs. “I can’t really tell you,” he says. “I’ve never been into analysis, or a shrink at all, so I have no idea. And I really don’t care.” This response certainly fits O’Reilly’s pose as a down-to-earth guy with zero patience for highfalutin indulgences such as therapy. However, his books are filled with tortured efforts to come to grips with his unresolved feelings about his dad. Relations with his mother were better, but not much. “I had as little to do with my parents as humanly possible,” he says.
O’Reilly graduated from Marist College in 1971, then worked for two years as a high school teacher in Miami. Unhappy, he enrolled in the master’s program in broadcast journalism at Boston University. After graduating in 1975, he landed a job at a tiny station, WNEP-TV in Scranton, Pennsylvania. From the start, O’Reilly had an innate understanding that emotion and outrage grabbed viewers. “He liked the looking-out-for-the-little-guy stories,” says Eiden Hale, then the station’s news director, “the consumer stories, the who-got-ripped-off stories.”
The fearless-crusader routine made him an instant star in the tiny market of Scranton. Within nine months, he caught the eye of one of the country’s best local TV stations: WFAA in Dallas. O’Reilly has written about his disastrous tenure at WFAA (“I made every possible political mistake”), but he also says that the intense dislike he engendered among his colleagues stemmed from his excess of moxie and a too-strong impulse for honesty. Portraying himself as a straight shooter among spineless co-workers, O’Reilly says he was the only employee to challenge management for hiring a female anchor who was sleeping with “one of the station honchos” — an act of bravery that earned him a two-week suspension for “insubordination.”
But the picture that emerges of O’Reilly from talking to former colleagues at WFAA is very different. They accuse him of lifting stories from the newspaper and undermining newsroom colleagues. “In a business where there are a lot of reprehensible people,” says longtime WFAA reporter Byron Harris, “he stood out as particularly dishonest, obnoxious, self-centered.”
After two years at WFAA, O’Reilly moved to KMGH-TV, a station in Denver. He was at first as unpopular in Denver as he had been in Dallas. “One of the things that’s never endeared him to people is how remarkably pushy he is,” says one former KMGH co-worker. But after a year there, O’Reilly had become a bona fide star, and he gathered around himself a coterie of awed, mostly younger reporters. Bob Cullinan, a twenty-three-year-old from Nebraska, was one of them. Cullinan says that O’Reilly cultivated these “disciples” who included fellow reporters Joe Spencer and Michael Scott. After work, the four of them would hit the local dance bars, where O’Reilly was clearly the alpha male on the party circuit. “I was like the original James Bond,” he says.
O’Reilly was setting the agenda in the KMGH newsroom, too. “Bill was only twenty-nine or thirty, but he pretty much ran that place,” says Cullinan. But Cullinan was sometimes troubled by his mentor’s approach. “I helped him produce some stories,” he says. “He would-write the story before he did the interviews. Then he’d get the person to say what fit with his narrative.”
In 1979, O’Reilly moved on again, this time to anchor a news broadcast in Hartford, Connecticut. By 1980, he was let go because of what the station called a “conflict of chemistry.” He recovered quickly, when he was hired to host a local evening magazine show at WCBS-TV in New York. After a year, O’Reilly got his big break, becoming a CBS network correspondent, filing stories for the CBS Evening News With Dan Rather. It didn’t take long before controversy found him again. In June 1982, he was sent to CBS’ bureau in Buenos Aires during the Falkland Islands war. Shortly after arriving, O’Reilly went to cover a story about a crowd of angry Argentines who had gathered in the streets. He was convinced he’d landed a scoop that would put him in a prominent spot on the evening news. But his bosses gave the story to CBS’ star correspondent in Buenos Aires, Bob Schieffer — a classic case of “big-footing,” which one member of the bureau points out is “normal for young reporters. That’s just part of TV news.” But O’Reilly wouldn’t stand for it. He reportedly threw a tantrum with his bosses in Buenos Aires and had an ugly confrontation with Schieffer. Within days of arriving, O’Reilly was kicked out of the bureau. “They literally sent him home,” recalls one of the team members.
O’Reilly soon left CBS and began a series of ignominious local TV gigs that included weekend anchoring on the lowest-rated local station in Boston. In 1986, he got another shot at a network position: His old friend Joe Spencer, then an ABC News correspondent, died in a helicopter crash, and ABC News president Roone Arledge was so impressed with the eulogy O’Reilly gave at Spencer’s funeral that he hired him as a network correspondent.
In 1989, after three years at ABC, O’Reilly was offered the job on a bizarre new kind of television show, a syndicated “infotainment” program called Inside Edition, a direct precursor to the blaring, tabloid-inspired Fox News Channel programming — all flashy graphics, ka-chunging theme music and a direct appeal not to objective reporting but to emotion-roiling sensationalism. O’Reilly saw the future of TV, and Inside Edition was it. Initially scorned, the program was soon pulling in millions of viewers a night. All three networks quickly sexed up their own magazine shows: NBC’s Dateline, ABC’s 20/20 and CBS’ 48 Hours. O’Reilly, meanwhile, then forty and a star anchor, finally began to show symptoms of enjoying life. For vacations, he would summon the posse of male friends he’d cultivated at each stage of his life and lead them on adventures around the world. The trips were riotous fun. “You get twelve guys together and you take over a Club Med and try not to get arrested,” Cullinan says.
According to Cullinan, fame changed O’Reilly. Whereas he used to limit his hostility to news directors and bosses, he began to aim it at friends. In August 1995, during a trip with O’Reilly, Cullinan became the object of O’Reilly’s rage when he questioned the split on their shared hotel bill. Cullinan thought they’d been overcharged for parking. O’Reilly believed Cullinan was accusing him of trying to cheat him out of a few dollars. He dressed Cullinan down in a crowded restaurant, at the top of his lungs. The two men have not spoken since, a fact that has left Cullinan more saddened than bitter. He attributes O’Reilly’s behavior to the pressures that came with Inside Edition’s success. “A lot of people wanted to take advantage of him,” he says, “so he became a lot more suspicious and paranoid.”
He was also, in his sixth year at Inside Edition, growing sick of the show, which was slipping in the ratings, losing viewers to the network knockoffs. Seeking a midlife course correction, O’Reilly enrolled in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, with an eye toward going into politics. Since the late 19805, O’Reilly had been fielding offers to run for Congress as a Republican. But at Harvard he was approached by Roger Ailes, then recruiting talent for the Fox News Channel, scheduled to launch later that year.
The show, initially called The O’Reilly Report, debuted with the launch of the Fox News Channel in October 1996. Airing at 6:00 P.M., the show had weak ratings for the first year and a half, until the Monica Lewinsky story broke in January 1998. That’s when Ailes shifted O’Reilly to his current 8:00 P.M. slot. The combination of a later airtime and a relentless focus on Clinton’s sexual indiscretion proved a ratings bonanza. O’Reilly’s paint-stripping interview style was ideal for ripping the Clinton apologists who came on the program to try to rescue the president’s reputation and job. Around this time, another change — subtle, but important — was introduced. The show’s name was changed from The O’Reilly Report to The O’Reilly Factor. Asked how he came up with the title, O’Reilly shrugs and says, “It means that I’m the factor in the show that separates it from all the other shows.”
But according to Cullinan, the title actually derives from a term O’Reilly became familiar with in the mid-1980s, when his friend John Tantillo came up with a phrase to describe the small distortions and subtle shadings that seemed to shape O’Reilly’s reality. “Tantillo once remarked that everything that transpired around Bill had what he called an ‘O’Reilly factor’ to it,” says Cullinan. “We used to say back then that Bill would never lie, but he got more mileage out of the truth than anybody. … So that became a catchphrase for little O’Reilly stories: ‘Oh, it was the O’Reilly factor.'”
Throughout 1998, O’Reilly milked the Lewinsky story nightly, and ratings for The Factor climbed. But it took the 2000 election to push The Factor over the top, past all the cable competition: Crossfire, Rivera, Live, Hardball With Chris Matthews and finally CNN’s Larry King Live, which O’Reilly overtook in the ratings in late 2000 — “an astonishing feat,” the Washington Post said, “given that CNN is available in 23 million more homes than Fox News.”
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O’Reilly’s success, however, has brought a scrutiny to which he had never before been subjected. Journalists began combing through his life, noting those areas where the “O’Reilly factor” was in play. A reporter at the New York Daily News revealed that O’Reilly, despite claims of being an Independent, was a registered Republican. O’Reilly insisted this was a “clerical error” — until the actual registration form surfaced, showing O’Reilly’s signature and his check-mark in the box beside REPUBLICAN. Last year, Al Franken gathered all of these embarrassments together in his best-selling book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, which featured an unflattering picture of O’Reilly on the cover and a chapter titled “Bill O’Reilly: Lying, Splotchy Bully.” The two men had a now-famous fight in June 2003 while sharing a stage at a Los Angeles book expo, during which O’Reilly denounced Franken as an “idiot” and screamed his now-signature comment: “Shut up!” Fox then sued Franken and his publisher for using the words “fair and balanced” in his book’s subtitle, claiming infringement of Fox News Channel’s trademarked slogan. To no one’s surprise, a judge called Fox’s suit “wholly without merit” and threw it out.
“His whole book is a bunch of propaganda garbage,” O’Reilly says about Franken. “He’s a bug, he’s a parasite.” Not only that, he’s part of the vast left-wing conspiracy to discredit O’Reilly. “The crux of the story, which is important, is that the left took [Franken] and used him as a stalking horse,” O’Reilly says. “They said, “We don’t •want to do this dirty work’ — ‘we,’ the New York Times, the L.A. Times — ‘but he’ll do it. We’ll promote him, we’ll encourage him, we’ll legitimize him.'” O’Reilly says that the “elite” media have it in for him because he’s outspokenly critical of them on his show; “They think, ‘Along comes this punk O’Reilly, who at first we dismissed as this eccentric ideologue but now actually commands the attention of millions of people every day…. We’ve got to get him!'”
Such fears have driven O’Reilly into deep secrecy about himself and his private life. In 1995, at 46, he married Maureen McPhilmy, who worked for a video-production company. They have two small children. But he refuses to discuss them, citing “security concerns.” He lives on Long Island, not far from where he grew up, but refuses to be more specific. He and his family, by some reports, live relatively modestly, given that O’Reilly is today a multimillionaire. To his credit, he spurns the standard trappings of fame, celebrity and wealth. He wears moderately priced suits and drives a secondhand Lexus. But O’Reilly says that neither marriage nor parenthood have calmed the fire in his belly. “I work harder now than I did when I started here,” he says as he heads down a hallway at Fox News. “I tell myself all the time, ‘Even though I know we’re ahead and there’s no one close to us, we can’t just win. We have to crush.'”
Some are convinced that TV-pundit success is not enough for O’Reilly. “He has much higher aspirations,” says Cullinan. Asked what those might be, Cullinan adds, without irony, “President.” He pauses. “If you watch the show, you can see how he’s positioning himself against Hillary Clinton. He’s setting it up — just like he sets up guests on the show.”
Preposterously implausible as this sounds, O’Reilly does not laugh it off. Quite the reverse. “Well, I’m flattered that somebody actually thinks I could handle the job,” he says, his voice gone all plummy and pleased. “I have said that The Factor is the last job that I want, and I’m going to be here for a while. Will I rule out politics? No. But I’m certainly not going to seek it. If I wanted to do that, I would have done it already. I’ve had many, many opportunities, and I’ve turned them all down. And I think I can do more good, at this point, right where I am.”
Shorn of the “O’Reilly factor,” it sounds like he just might go for it.
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